United States District Court, N.D. Alabama, Northeastern Division
T. MICHAEL PUTNAM, Magistrate Judge.
The plaintiff, Cynthia Denise Barber, appeals from the decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration ("Commissioner") denying her application for Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") and Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB"). Ms. Barber timely pursued and exhausted her administrative remedies, and the decision of the Commissioner is ripe for review pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 1383(c)(3). The parties have consented to the jurisdiction of the undersigned magistrate judge pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 626(c).
Ms. Barber was 48 years old at the time of the Administrative Law Judge's ("ALJ's") decision, and she has a high school equivalent education. (Tr. at 23). Her past work experiences are as a nurse's aide and as a group home supervisor. ( Id. ) Ms. Barber claims that she became disabled on March 1, 2009, due to degenerative joint disease of the back and neck, fibromyalgia, and depression. (Tr. at 137).
When evaluating the disability of individuals over the age of eighteen, the regulations prescribe a five-step sequential evaluation process. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920; see also Doughty v. Apfel, 245 F.3d 1274, 1278 (11th Cir. 2001). The first step requires a determination of whether the claimant is "doing substantial gainful activity." 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(i), 416.920(a)(4)(i). If she is, the claimant is not disabled and the evaluation stops. Id. If he or she is not, the Commissioner next considers the effect of all of the physical and mental impairments combined. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(ii), 416.920(a)(4)(ii). These impairments must be severe and must meet the durational requirements before a claimant will be found to be disabled. Id. The decision depends upon the medical evidence in the record. See Hart v. Finch, 440 F.2d 1340, 1341 (5th Cir. 1971). If the claimant's impairments are not severe, the analysis stops. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(ii), 416.920(a)(4)(ii). Otherwise, the analysis continues to step three, which is a determination of whether the claimant's impairments meet or equal the severity of an impairment listed in 20 C.F.R. pt. 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iii), 416.920(a)(4)(iii). If the claimant's impairments fall within this category, he or she will be found disabled without further consideration. Id. If she does not, a determination of the claimant's residual functional capacity ("RFC") will be made and the analysis proceeds to the fourth step. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(e), 416.920(e). Residual functional capacity is an assessment based on all relevant evidence of a claimant's remaining ability to do work despite his or her impairments. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a).
The fourth step requires a determination of whether the claimant's impairments prevent her from returning to past relevant work. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iv), 416.920(a)(4)(iv). If the claimant can still do her past relevant work, the claimant is not disabled and the evaluation stops. Id. If the claimant cannot do past relevant work, then the analysis proceeds to the fifth step. Id. Step five requires the court to consider the claimant's RFC, as well as the claimant's age, education, and past work experience, in order to determine if she can do other work. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(v), 416.920(a)(4)(v). If the claimant can do other work, the claimant is not disabled. Id. The burden of demonstrating that other jobs exist which the claimant can perform is on the Commissioner; and, once that burden is met, the claimant must prove her inability to perform those jobs in order to be found to be disabled. Jones v. Apfel, 190 F.3d 1224, 1228 (11th Cir. 1999).
Applying the sequential evaluation process, the ALJ found that Ms. Barber has not been under a disability within the meaning of the Social Security Act from the date of onset through the date of his decision. (Tr. at 26). He determined that Ms. Barber has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset of her disability. (Tr. at 13). According to the ALJ, Ms. Barber's degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine, mild degenerative disc disease of the cervical spine, obesity, and major depression are considered "severe" based on the requirements set forth in the regulations. ( Id. ) He further determined that these impairments neither meet nor medically equal any of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (Tr. at 14-16). The ALJ did not find Ms. Barber's allegations to be totally credible. (Tr. at 17). He determined that the plaintiff has the residual functional capacity to perform unskilled sedentary work with the following limitations: that she can frequently lift or carry 10 pounds, and 20 to 50 pounds occasionally; sit five hours in an eight-hour workday, but no more than four hours at one time, without the ability to stand and change position; stand for two hours in an eight-hour workday; walk for one hour in an eight-hour workday; frequently reach in all directions; handle, finger, feel, push, and pull with both hands; frequently operate foot controls; frequently climb stairs, ramps, ladders or scaffolds; frequently balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl; frequently work at unprotected heights, around moving mechanical parts, and operate a motor vehicle; frequently work in humidity, wetness, dust, odor, fumes, pulmonary irritants, extreme cold and heat and vibratory jobs; understand and remember simple instructions but not detailed instructions; and carry out simple instructions and sustain attention to routine/familiar tasks for eight hours in two-hour increments with all normal rest breaks. (Tr. at 16). He further determined that Ms. Barber should have only occasional contact with the public and can adapt to infrequent, well-explained changes. ( Id. )
According to the ALJ, Ms. Barber is unable to perform any of her past relevant work, she was a "younger individual" at the date of alleged onset, and she has a high school education and is able to communicate in English, as those terms are defined by the regulations. (Tr. at 23). He determined that "transferability of skills is not material to the determination of disability" in this case. (Tr. at 24). The ALJ found that Ms. Barber has the residual functional capacity to perform a significant range of sedentary work. (Tr. at 25). Even though Plaintiff cannot perform the full range of sedentary work, the ALJ found that there are a significant number of jobs in the national economy that she is capable of performing, such as cutter and paster, final assembler, and assembler. (Tr. at 24). The ALJ concluded his findings by stating that Plaintiff is "not disabled" under the Social Security Act. (Tr. at 24).
II. Standard of Review
This court's role in reviewing claims brought under the Social Security Act is a narrow one. The scope of its review is limited to determining (1) whether there is substantial evidence in the record as a whole to support the findings of the Commissioner, and (2) whether the correct legal standards were applied. See Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 390, 401 (1971); Wilson v. Barnhart, 284 F.3d 1219, 1221 (11th Cir. 2002). The court approaches the factual findings of the Commissioner with deference, but applies close scrutiny to the legal conclusions. See Miles v. Chater, 84 F.3d 1397, 1400 (11th Cir. 1996). The court may not decide facts, weigh evidence, or substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner. Id. "The substantial evidence standard permits administrative decision makers to act with considerable latitude, and the possibility of drawing two inconsistent conclusions from the evidence does not prevent an administrative agency's finding from being supported by substantial evidence.'" Parker v. Bowen, 793 F.2d 1177, 1181 (11th Cir. 1986) (Gibson, J., dissenting) (quoting Consolo v. Fed. Mar. Comm'n, 383 U.S. 607, 620 (1966)). Indeed, even if this court finds that the evidence preponderates against the Commissioner's decision, the court must affirm if the decision is supported by substantial evidence. Miles, 84 F.3d at 1400. No decision is automatic, however, for "despite this deferential standard [for review of claims] it is imperative that the Court scrutinize the record in its entirety to determine the reasonableness of the decision reached." Bridges v. Bowen, 815 F.2d 622, 624 (11th Cir. 1987). Moreover, failure to apply the correct legal standards is grounds for reversal. See Bowen v. Heckler, 748 F.2d 629, 635 (11th Cir. 1984).
Ms. Barber contends that the ALJ's decision should be reversed and remanded because, she asserts, the ALJ failed to give proper weight to the opinions of three treating physicians. (Doc. 9, p. 9). Plaintiff contends that the ALJ failed to properly weigh the opinion of Dr. Qi Wan, who opined that Ms. Barber "could not maintain full time employment at the sedentary level;" the opinion of Dr. Luke Robinson that Ms. Barber "could not maintain full time employment" due to "lumbar spondylosis and sacroiliitis"; and the opinion of Dr. Anapuma Yedia that Ms. Barber had "marked" impairment in "attention, concentration or pace for periods of at least two hours." (Doc. 9, pp. 10-11). The Commissioner has responded that the opinions of Drs. Wan, Robinson, and Yedia were properly assessed as being inconsistent with other evidence in the record, including their own treatment notes. (Doc. 11, pp. 10-12).
A. Treating Physician's Assessment
Under prevailing law, a treating physician's testimony is entitled to "substantial or considerable weight unless good cause' is shown to the contrary." Crawford v. Commissioner of Social Security, 363 F.3d 1155, 1159 (11th Cir. 1997)(internal quotations omitted). The weight to be afforded a medical opinion regarding the nature and severity of a claimant's impairments depends, among other things, upon the examining and treating relationship the medical source had with the claimant, the evidence the medical source presents to support the opinion, how consistent the opinion is with the record as a whole, and the specialty of the medical source. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527(d), 416.927(d). "Good cause" exists for an ALJ not to give a treating physician's opinion substantial weight when the "(1) treating physician's opinion was not bolstered by the evidence; (2) evidence supported a contrary finding; or (3)... was conclusory or inconsistent with the doctor's own medical records." Phillips v. Barnhart, 357 ...